International Day of Yoga Arose Above Controversy

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International Day of YogaWhile millions worldwide did Sun Salutations today to celebrate the Summer Solstice and the inaugural International Day of Yoga, not everyone bent over backwards (or forwards) to support the event and rise above the controversy that arose about its spiritual origins. Some religious groups, particularly Muslims, claimed that the practice is against their religious beliefs because of its Hindu roots.

When Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi spoke to the United Nations last fall, he talked about yoga, which he practices and promotes. The General Assembly adopted a resolution declaring June 21, the summer solstice, as International Day of Yoga. A record 177 countries endorsed the U.N. measure, and plans were developed for events in countries worldwide. In spite of the criticism, 47 Islamic nations officially co-sponsored the U.N. declaration and many held large yoga events, just without some asanas (poses)

A lot of the controversy arose about the yoga day plans from religious minorities in India. Some critics accuse Modi of pushing a Hindu agenda. The All India Muslim Personal Law Board, a non-governmental organization, had raised objections to surya namaskar, the set of poses commonly known as the “sun salutation.” They claimed that it represented worship of the sun, and conflicted with religious teachings. The Muslims in India were particularly concerned that schools their children attended would be participating in yoga practices for the celebration.

Religious identity and respect for pluralism have been top issues in India for decades (they are also issues in many other countries). The Indian Prime Minister, who is devoutly Hindu, has emphasized that yoga is spiritual in nature and a holistic approach to physical and mental well-being.

The issue over yoga as a religious practice has been taken to court many times over the years. As recent as 2013, a California couple sued because their local school district was offering yoga classes, which they felt promoted religion. The court decision said, despite its religious roots, offering yoga in schools does not infringe on separation of church and state. In India that year, the Supreme Court also ruled that yoga was not too religious to be in public schools.

When proposed, the International Day of Yoga was supposed to promote world togetherness, peace and some physical fitness. Modi did emphasize in his U.N. address that “yoga is not just about exercise. It is a way to discover the sense of oneness with yourself, the world and the nature.”

Additionally, in a statement before the resolution passed, the President of the 69th General Assembly, Sam Kutesa, commented people from all walks of live have practiced yoga for centuries, “recognizing its unique embodiment of unity between mind and body. Yoga brings thought and action together in harmony.”

In spite of the initial backlash, the first International Yoga Day appears to have been a hit in all corners or curves of the world. More than 35,000 people, including Modi and his cabinet members, gathered in New Delhi to mark the event and it was beamed worldwide. There were massively attended events in New York’s Times Square, at the Eiffel Tower in Paris, 14 cities in China, in Mexico City, and countless other location. The tremendous response, and photos of people in warrior poses versus being warriors, shows that International Day of Yoga was a success and arose above the initial controversy

Written and edited by Dyanne Weiss

International Day of Yoga
Washington Post: India’s International Yoga Day was supposed to promote peace and harmony — but it didn’t turn out that way.
United Nations International Day of Yoga
Odisha News: 47 Islamic Nations join International Day of Yoga 2015